Category Archives: Ira Levin

The Atmosphere is Electric*

AtmospheresAn interesting guest post on crime writer and fellow blogger Sue Coletta’s site has got me thinking about atmosphere. In part, the post’s focus is on character development, and that’s important of course. But the post also mentioned the larger context – the atmosphere.

Writers, of course, can use context for a number of purposes, far too numerous to discuss here. So I’m going to just mention a couple of ways in which crime writers use atmosphere.

Sometimes, crime writers use atmosphere to serve as a stark contrast to the murder(s) that are the main plot threads of their story. You know the sort of thing, I’m sure: the peaceful, lovely small town that hides secrets.

Several of Agatha Christie’s stories are like that. For instance, Hallowe’en Party takes place in the village of Woodleigh Common, a small, outwardly peaceful place. One afternoon, several residents are visiting Apple Trees, the home of town social leader Rowena Drake. They’re helping her to get ready for a Hallowe’en party planned for later that evening. Also among the group is detective story author Ariadne Oliver. During the preparations, twelve-year-old Joyce Reynolds boasts that she saw a murder once. Everyone immediately hushes her up, and the assumption is made that she said what she said to call attention to herself, especially as Mrs. Oliver was there. But later, at the party, Joyce is murdered. Now everyone has to face the possibility that Joyce was telling the truth. Mrs. Oliver asks Hercule Poirot to come to Woodleigh Common and help find out what happened, and he agrees. When the two of them visit Apple Trees to talk to Mrs. Drake, Mrs. Oliver says,
 

‘‘It doesn’t look the sort of house there’d be a murder in, does it?’’
 

And it doesn’t. It’s a neatly-kept, pleasant house in a small, peaceful community. Nothing creepy about it. And that contrasts with what happens at the house, and with what is later revealed about some events in the town.

Ira Levin uses a similar strategy in The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut, hoping to find low taxes and good schools. At first, everything goes smoothly. The town is beautiful, the residents are pleasant, and everyone settles in. But then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t take her seriously. But then, some things happen that show just how right Bobbie was. Levin fans will know that he takes quite a different approach in Rosemary’s Baby, where the apartment building that features so heavily in the novel is depicted as rather eerie right from the start.

Nelson Brunanski’s novels featuring John ‘Bart’ Bartowski often feature the small town of Crooked Lake, Saskatchewan. It’s a quiet town where everyone knows everyone, and where life is mostly peaceful. That lovely small-town backdrop contrasts with the main murder plots of the stories. For example, in Crooked Lake, the first of the series, the body of Harvey Kristoff is found on the grounds of the Crooked Lake Regional Park and Golf Course. The most likely suspect is former head greenskeeper Nick Taylor, whom Kristoff recently had fired. But Taylor claims he’s innocent, and asks Bart to help clear his name. In Frost Bite, Bart gets involved in the murder of Lionel Morrison, a CEO with quite a lot of ‘clout.’ He spent some time at Stuart Lake Lodge, a fishing lodge owned by Bart and his wife Rosie. Later, Bart discovers Morrison’s body under a pile of wheat at the Crooked Lake Wheat Pool elevator. Crooked Lake’s peaceful, ‘down home’ sort of atmosphere serves as a really interesting contrast to the murders that happen there.

Of course, some crime writers use a story’s overall atmosphere to add to the suspense. That, too, can be quite effective. For example, Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn is the story of Mary Yellan. When her mother dies, Mary obeys her mother’s last request and goes to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss, who own Jamaica Inn. The inn is in Cornwall, between Bodmin and Launceston. Before Mary even arrives, she’s warned about Jamaica Inn, but she chooses to continue the journey. And when she arrives, she finds that it’s every bit as dreary and unpleasant as she’d heard. The place is isolated, run-down and creepy. Her uncle is unpleasant and abusive, and her aunt so downtrodden that she does nothing about it. This atmosphere serves as the backdrop for a case of murder, and for some very dark secrets that Mary discovers.

Several novels in Louise Penny’s series featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache make mention of the old Hadley house. Fans of this series will know that it has a dark history, and that adds to its eerie atmosphere. Even Gamache, who is not a fanciful person, doesn’t like going there. In The Cruelest Month, a murder takes place there. A well-known Hungarian psychic, Madame Blavatsky, is staying in Three Pines, and is persuaded to hold a séance during her stay. The first attempt doesn’t go well, but another is scheduled during the Easter break, and is to be held at the Hadley place. During that second séance, Madeleine Favreau suddenly dies. At first, it’s said that she was frightened to death. But soon, it’s discovered that she’s been given a lethal dose of a diet drug. In this case, the house’s creepy history and atmosphere add to the suspense and tension.

And then there’s Stephen Booth’s Dying to Sin, which features DS Diane Fry and DC Ben Cooper. In that novel, two sets of remains are discovered in the Peak District on Pity Wood Farm, which used to be owned by the Sutton family. It now belongs to a Manchester attorney named Aaron Goodwin, but he bought the property after the remains were already there. So the detectives focus on the Suttons and on the people who lived in the area when they owned the farm. The nearest village is Rakedale, and Fry and Cooper are hoping to get some background from the residents. But Rakedale is a close-mouthed, creepy place. Few people are interested in speaking to the police, and even fewer in discussing the Suttons. It makes for a tense sort of atmosphere.

Whether the author chooses to use atmosphere to contrast with a murder (or murders), or add to the tension, it’s hard to deny the importance of atmosphere in adding to a story. Which atmospheres have stayed with you?

Thanks for the inspiration to Sue and her guest, David Villalva! Now, please go visit Sue’s excellent blog. It’s a fantastic resource for crime writers, and a fascinating place to learn all kinds of interesting things.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Little River Band’s So Many Paths.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Daphne du Maurier, Ira Levin, Louise Penny, Nelson Brunanski, Stephen Booth

It’s Like a Dream Come True*

Dreams and WishesMost of us have dreams and wishes. A lot of times they don’t come true, but that doesn’t stop people dreaming. After all, some dreams do happen. But an old saying goes,
 

‘Be careful what you wish for…’
 

and that’s not bad advice. Sometimes what seems like a dream come true doesn’t turn out to be that way at all.

There’s certainly plenty of that plot point in crime fiction, and that makes sense. Discovering that one’s dream job/home/partner is anything but can add solid suspense to a story. And that’s to say nothing of the motive it can provide for all sorts of things.

We see that, for instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Red-Headed League. Pawnbroker Jabez Wilson responded to an unusual job advertisement in a local newspaper, placed by the League of Red-Headed Men. The main qualification seemed to be that the successful applicant must have red hair. Wilson was told that the money was reasonable and the work easy, and he is certainly red-haired; so he decided to apply. Much to his surprise, he was selected and soon began his work. His duties were simple: to copy the Encyclopaedia Britannica. All went well at first, and seemed like a perfect way to add to his income. Everything changed one day, though, when he came to the league’s offices, only to find a sign indicating that the Red-Headed League was disbanded. Wilson wants to know what happened to the league, so he asks Sherlock Holmes to investigate. As it turns out, the league was a cover for a nefarious plot to rob a nearby bank.

In Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds, Hercule Poirot works with Chief Inspector Japp to find out who poisoned Marie Marisot, a French moneylender whose business name was Madame Giselle. She was poisoned during a flight from Paris to London, so the only possible suspects are her fellow passengers. And it turns out that more than one of them had a motive. Madame Giselle’s business worked in an unusual way. She would lend money to people after she’d found out damaging or at least compromising, information about them. That information served as collateral, to be held over those who wouldn’t or couldn’t pay what they owed. Here’s what one of her clients has to say about it:
 

‘‘But later she lent you more?’ [Poirot]
‘Yes, as much as I wanted. It seemed like a miracle at the time.’’
 

That dream come true turns out to be a nightmare for this client, whose debt soon ran so high that it was impossible to pay it back. That was when Madame Giselle threatened to reveal some very uncomfortable truths…

Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives begins as Walter and Joanna Eberhart and their two children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. At first, the town seems like a dream come true – exactly what they’ve wanted. The taxes are low, the schools are good, the new house is just what they hoped for, and the children are settling in. Then, Joanna’s new friend Bobbie Markowe begins to suspect that there is something very wrong going on in Stepford. At first, Joanna doesn’t believe Bobbie. But little by little, she comes to see that Bobbie was probably right. And the closer she gets to the truth of what’s going on, the more nightmarish it gets.

In Caroline Graham’s A Ghost in the Machine, we are introduced to Mallory and Kate Lawson. Mallory’s become ‘burned out’ as a teacher/headmaster, and started to pull away from his family. Kate loves her husband, but can’t deny the strain in their family. Then, they get news that seems like a dream come true. Mallory’s Aunt Carey has died (of natural causes) and left her nephew and his family a large fortune. All they need to do is move into the home she left behind, and ensure that her longtime friend and companion Benny Frayle has a permanent home there. That’s little enough to ask, so the Lawsons take up their new residence and get to know Benny. Soon, they’ll be able to start up their own publishing company, something they’ve always wanted. Now it seems that they’ll be able to live out their dream. It all starts to go sour, though, when the Lawson’s daughter Polly decides to get out of major financial mess by taking her share of the money sooner than her great-aunt’s will stipulates. Her plan backfires badly, which is trouble enough. Then, the family’s financial advisor Dennis Brinkley is killed. On the surface of it, it looks like an accident. But Benny suspects that it was murder, and she determines that the police should investigate. Finally, after another death, DCI Tom Barnaby and his assistant Gavin Troy look into the matter closely, and discover who’s behind the deaths. It just goes to show that inheriting a lot of money doesn’t solve everything.

Librarian Israel Armstrong gets a wish to come true in Ian Sansom’s The Case of the Missing Books. He wants a career as a librarian, but so far, he’s only been able to find a job as a bookseller’s assistant. It’s a ‘nowhere’ job, and not what he wants. So when he sees an advertisement for a librarian’s position at the Tumdrum and District Library in Ireland, he applies. To his happy surprise, he gets the job and travels from his home in North London to Ireland. He’s expecting that this will be the stepping-stone to a fine career that may lead to a very important position at a university library or even the British Library. It doesn’t turn out to be that way though. For one thing, when he arrives, Armstrong finds out that he’s actually been hired to drive the local mobile library, which is a rattletrap bus. The district has very little money, but is required by law to make library books available all over the area. This is the solution they’ve found, and for the urban-dwelling Armstrong, that’s bad enough. His living conditions (a makeshift bed in a chicken coop) just make matters worse. Then he discovers that the books he’s supposed to make available have disappeared. He’s going to have to find them if he’s going to keep his job and reputation.

And then there’s Paddy Richardson’s Cross Fingers. In one plot thread of that novel, television journalist Rebecca Thorne works on an exposé of dubious developer Denny Graham. His stock in trade is luring investors with lush advertisements that feature luxurious retirement properties. He then hosts parties where he sells those potential investors on his properties and gets them to buy into that ‘dream retirement.’ But there’ve been several allegations that Graham is dishonest. When Thorne visits one of his properties, she finds that it’s completely undeveloped. What’s more, she talks with several people who’ve been bilked out of their money and had to severely retrench their lifestyles because of it.

So maybe there is some truth that old saying about being careful what you wish for. These are just a few examples. I haven’t even touched the numerous novels in which a dream marriage turns nightmarish – too easy. Over to you.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Walter Becker and Donald Fagen’s Peg.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Caroline Graham, Ian Sansom, Ira Levin, Paddy Richardson

He’s Adept at Adaptation*

AdaptingWe all have to adapt to new circumstances. If you get a new job, you need to learn the way your new employer does things. When you move to a new place, you have to find out where the library, the grocery store and the banks are. You also need to learn the local culture and fit in, if you want to settle in. The fact is, humans are a social species, so most of us want to be part of a group. The way to do that is…adapt.

Some adaptation makes a lot of sense. New employees need to learn company policies. Moving in with a new partner or spouse means that both parties have to adapt if the relationship is going to be successful. But how far does adaptation go before it means giving up too much? It’s not always an easy question, and crime fiction makes that clear. Here are just a few examples; I know you’ll be able to add lots more than I could.

Some adaptations aren’t really all that difficult. For example, in Agatha Christie’s Death in the Clouds (AKA Death in the Air), we meet Jane Grey. She’s a hairdresser’s assistant in an upmarket London salon. She isn’t what you’d call poor, but she’s certainly not well-off. When she has a very unexpected win in a lottery, Jane decides to have a taste of ‘the good life.’ She takes a holiday at Le Pinet, as many of her clients have done. It’s not the fantasy trip it might have seemed, as she has quite a losing streak. But Jane is practical, and never really expected to spend the rest of her life in the lap of luxury. She does have to make some adaptations, so as to mix effectively with those who can go to Le Pinet whenever they want:
 

‘Jane, like most London girls employed in smart places, could produce a miraculous effect of fashion for a ridiculously small outlay. Nails, make-up, and hair were beyond reproach.’
 

The efforts that Jane goes to don’t cost her that much. But they do get her involved in a murder investigation when a fellow passenger is murdered on the flight back from France to London. I know, I know, fans of The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Adaptation (and lack thereof) takes on a more deadly cast in Talmage Powell’s short story To Avoid a Scandal. Horace Croydon is an up-and-coming bank official who is neat, quiet, and utterly respectable in every way. He’s always led a rather staid life, and as he moves up the bank’s proverbial ladder, he makes sure to only hire people who, like him, are completely respectable, preferably quiet, and with no hint of scandal anywhere in their families. Then one day, he meets his boss’ cousin Althea. When they first meet, she strikes him as quiet and respectable, just as he is. After a tasteful amount of time, they begin seeing each other seriously. Finally they’re married. That’s when Horace begins to see that Althea is not the person he thought he’d married. From his point of view, she is not a meticulous enough housekeeper, she has sloppy habits (she even shops without a list!) and is too ebullient for good taste. He keeps hoping she’ll adapt if he ‘corrects’ her, but she doesn’t. Then one day, she destroys a set of ciphers he was trying to work. They’re his passion, so this pushes him too far. Now Horace decides there’s really only one way to solve his problem. In this story we might very well ask, ‘who didn’t adapt?’

In Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives, Walter and Joanna Eberhart move with their two children from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut. They’re looking forward to more space, lower taxes, and good schooling for the children. From the very first, Joanna finds it a bit difficult to adapt. She’s a semi-professional photographer and a feminist who’s now living in a town where all of the women seem preoccupied by their homes and taking care of their families. In one scene, for instance, she’s in the supermarket, and notices that,
 
…they even fill their carts neatly!’
 

She tries to adapt, but finds it difficult to be,
 

‘…deeply concerned about whether pink soap pads are better than blue ones or vice versa…’
 

After a short time, she makes a friend in Bobbie Markowe, who shares Joanna’s frustrations. Neither of them wants to make the adaptations that it seems they’re expected to make. And that has consequences for both.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little introduces us to Alice Steele, a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant. She meets Bill King, a junior investigator for the district attorney, and the two fall in love. Bill’s sister Lora, a Pasadena teacher, is not at all impressed with Alice, and becomes concerned for her brother. But even she understands that it might just be a bit of jealousy on her part. So she doesn’t interfere when Bill and Alice get married. Alice soon settles into married life in the suburbs, and adapts very quickly. She becomes the social leader among their friends, and Lora tries to be friendly with her, mostly for Bill’s sake. But Lora wonders just how much Alice has adapted. The more she learns about Alice’s past, the more she wonders just who Alice really is. As she finds out, Lora is repelled, but at the same time drawn in, by Alice’s world. Then there’s a murder, and a good chance that Alice might be mixed up in it. So Lora starts asking questions, mostly (as she tells herself) to protect her brother. That choice turns out to have real consequences for everyone.

The question of how much you give up of yourself when you adapt comes up in Betty Webb’s Desert Wives. PI Lena Jones and her business partner Jimmy Sisiwan investigate the murder of Solomon Lord, leader of a very reclusive polygamist sect living on a compound called Purity. The members of the community are not willing to talk to ‘outsiders,’ so it’s decided that Jones will go undercover as a new member of the community. To do so, she has to make a lot of adaptations. It’s not just a matter of dressing in a particular way, either. Everyone’s activities are circumscribed, even non-verbals such as eye contact. Every new member has to make those adaptations, and they can be difficult. Jones does discover who killed the victim; she also uncovers other very dark secrets at Purity. But doing so requires almost more adaptation than she finds possible.

And then there’s Tonino Benacquista’s Badellas, which introduces readers to Fred and Maggie Blake and their children, who move from the US to the small Normandy town of Cholong-sur-Avre. The family finds it a challenge to make the adaptations they have to make to fit in in their new home; there are cultural differences, language differences, and food differences. Matters aren’t made any easier by the very high stakes involved.  Fred Blake is really Giovanni Manzoni, former member of the New Jersey Mob, who testified against the group. Now he and his family are in the US Federal Witness Protection Program, with new names and identities, and many adjustments they have to make. And when word of their whereabouts gets back to New Jersey, life gets even more complicated for them…

Adapting is often challenging, especially when it involves major adjustments. And those changes can be highly stressful. But they are part of life for a lot of people. And they can make for interesting plot points in a novel.

 

ps. There is little better adapted for life in the semi-arid climate where I live than a cactus. Unless it’s a lizard, but they’re harder to photograph…

 
 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Rush’s Digital Man.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Betty Webb, Ira Levin, Megan Abbott, Talmage Powell, Tonino Benacquista

Everywhere You Look Now There’s Murder Incorporated*

Changing Bad GuysWell-written crime fiction shows us ourselves – who we are as people. We can learn a lot about what we wish for, fear, and more as we read in the genre. For instance, if you consider the ‘bad guys’ in certain crime novels, you see that they reflect sociopolitical events, societal fears and sometimes prejudices. You also see how those have changed as the world has changed.

For example, if you look at early crime fiction, or historical crime fiction that takes place during the late Victorian Era and the Edwardian Era, you see that the ‘bad guys’ were frequently members or leaders of shadowy syndicates and crime rings. The best known example that I can think of is, of course, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. Fans will know that he is a highly intelligent master-criminal who gives Sherlock Holmes quite a run for the money, as the saying goes. But he’s not the only criminal of that type. You see that influence also in Will Thomas’ Fatal Enquiry. In that novel, private enquiry agent Cyrus Barker and his assistant Thomas Llewelyn go up against Sebastian Nightwine, a dangerous opponent whom Barker exposed as a criminal years ago. When Nightwine returns to London, Barker is sure that trouble is going to follow, and he’s right. Barker ends up accused of murder and on the run, with all of his assets frozen. Then there’s another murder. He and Llewelyn will have to work hard to clear his name and take down Nightwine’s.  A few of Agatha Christie’s novels (The Big Four being one of them) also set up shadowy syndicates as ‘the enemy).

More modern novels, such as Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano stories, have a more contemporary take on the crime syndicate. Sometimes, as in Camilleri’s work and that of authors such as Michael Dibdin and Tonino Benacquista, the syndicate takes the form of what we call the Mafia (sometimes in the US, it’s called the Mob). There are also modern takes on crime syndicates from other places, too, such as the Glasgow underworld that we see in William McIlvanney’s and Malcolm Mackay’s work.

World War I and World War II had profound influences on people’s conceptions of ‘bad guys.’ Several of Agatha Christie’s stories (N or M? and Postern of Fate, for instance) set up first the Triple Alliance, then the Axis powers (specifically the Nazis) as ‘the bad guys.’

And by no means is Christie the only author who’s used Nazis, their associates, and their modern-day incarnations as antagonists. You see that in a lot of crime fiction and thrillers, actually. Just to take a few examples, there’s Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther novels, Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, and Robert Gott’s The Holiday Murders.

In fact, the Nazis-as-enemies have had a profound influence even in modern crime fiction that simply touches on the World War II years. I’m thinking, for instance, of Camilla Läckberg’s The Hidden Child, Åsa Larsson’s Until Thy Wrath be Past, and Ferdinand von Schirach’s Der Fall Collini (The Collini Case). In those novels (and many more), we see how modern relationships, interactions, and even crime has its roots in the war, in Nazi occupation and in loyalties of that time.  It will be interesting to see what happens to that theme as time goes on, and there are fewer and fewer people whose parents/grandparents/great-grandparents lived through World War II.

In the post-World War II era, one of the most important geopolitical realities was the Cold War between the UK, US and their allies, and the then-Soviet Union and its allies. This arguably set up the KGB and other Soviet-bloc spy agencies as very effective ‘bad guys.’ Read the work of authors such as John le Carré, Len Deighton and Robert Ludlum, and you’ll see that in a lot of those novels, the enemy is usually the KGB or other such agency in some form or another. Sometimes it’s one person who’s a member of such a group, but that person often represents the Soviet Union and its policies. You can even see such sentiments in books that aren’t exactly what you would call spy thrillers. For example, there’s Martin Cruz Smith’s work featuring Arkady Renko. And Walter Mosley’s The Red Death has his sleuth Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins being asked to take down a suspected Communist. As I think about the Cold War era, I often wonder what impression I’d get if I could read Russian well enough to read some of the novels of those years that are written in that language.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1993, the world changed, and so did crime fiction. There are arguably two kinds of ‘bad guys’ that have populated crime fiction since that time. One is the Eastern European crime gang that we see in novels such as Daniel Pembrey’s The Harbour Master. Another, very closely related, outgrowth is arguably the Eastern European/Russian human trafficking gang (check out Tess Gerritson’s Vanish as an example). The other sort of ‘bad guy’ is the Russian oligarch/shady businessman. With official Communism at an end, these businessmen came to the fore in terms of their power and ruthlessness. Several of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels mention them (especially Exit Music). There are also some thrillers (such as Daniel Silva’s Moscow Rules) that touch on such people as ‘the bad guys.’

Another recent development in terms of ‘bad guys’ is the terrorist group, particularly the Middle Eastern terrorist group. Novels such as le Carré’s 1983 The Little Drummer Girl are earlier examples of such crime fiction, but by no means the only ones. Lindy Cameron’s Redback includes such terrorists as ‘bad guys.’ So do many other novels. In the wake of more recent terrorist events, we’ve seen a lot more such ‘bad guys,’ even in novels that aren’t billed as ‘thrillers.’

There’s also been another development in the sort of ‘bad guy’ authors choose: big corporations and their leaders.  I’m sure you’ve read as many novels as I have in which big developers are depicted as antagonists. Some novels (I’m thinking of Gail Bowen’s Kaleidoscope) present a more complex picture of development. But many depict big companies and developers quite negatively. For instance, there’s Peter Temple’s Bad Debts, several of C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, and more.

Not all crime novels feature this sort of plot. Many are more personal plots, if I can put it that way. They feature crimes where one person (or a group of people) commit murder for reasons such as revenge, fear, or personal greed. That said though, if we look at crime plots over time, we really do see, I think, how they often use certain antagonists to reflect the kind of fears and prejudices that we have. I wonder which group will be next to be depicted in this way…

 
 
 

NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Bruce Springsteen’s Murder Incorporated.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Andrea Camilleri, Arthur Conan Doyle, Åsa Larsson, C.J. Box, Camilla Läckberg, Daniel Pembrey, Daniel Silva, Ferdinand von Schirach, Gail Bowen, Ian Rankin, Ira Levin, John le Carré, Len Deighton, Lindy Cameron, Malcolm Mackay, Martin Cruz Smith, Michael Dibdin, Peter Temple, Philip Kerr, Robert Gott, Robert Ludlum, Tess Gerritsen, Tonino Benacquista, Walter Mosley, Will Thomas, William McIlvanney

Dress, Voice, Style, Image*

Image ObsessionIn Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch travels from New York City, where she’s been living, to her family’s home in Maycomb, Alabama. When she arrives, her Aunt Alexandra asks her,
 

‘‘Jean Louise, did you come down on the train Like That?’
 
Later in the conversation, Alexandra goes on,
 

‘’I do wish this time you’d try to dress better while you’re home. Folks in town get the wrong impression of you. They think you are – ah – slumming.’’
 

The debate over how Jean Louise ‘should’ dress and look highlights a very important social reality. There is often a great deal of pressure on people to dress in certain ways, look certain ways, and so on. That’s possibly even more the case with today’s social media. But it’s been going on for a very, very long time. Image isn’t just important for those on television or those who are considered ‘celebrities.’ There’s pressure even on ‘regular people’ too (e.g. ‘I can’t wear that! People might see me.’ ‘Wait, let me put my makeup on first. I can’t go out looking like this!’).

On the one hand, it makes sense to do certain ‘image’ things, such as wearing clean clothing, combing one’s hair, and so on. Like anything else, though, there’s definitely such a thing as too much pressure. There are all sorts of real-life stories of the negative consequences of that pressure, and we see it in crime fiction too.

For instance, in Agatha Christie’s The Murder on the Links, Captain Arthur Hastings is returning by train and ferry from France to London. He meets a fellow passenger, a young woman who calls herself Cinderella. At one point, they’re about to reach the Calais station, and she hastily touches up her powder and lip salve. When he comments that she doesn’t need all of that, she says,
 

‘‘My dear boy! I’ve got to do it. All the girls do. Think I want to look like a little frump just up from the country?’’
 

It’s an interesting look at the pressure to look a certain way. When the train pulls into the station, Hastings takes his leave of Cinderella, assuming he probably won’t see her again. What he doesn’t know is that he’ll get caught up in a strange case of murder – and that Cinderella will make another appearance…

There’s a darker, more biting look at this phenomenon in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. Joanna and Walter Eberhart and their children move from New York City to the small town of Stepford, Connecticut to take advantage of lower taxes and good schools. When the flurry of moving is over, they settle in and all goes well enough at first. Stepford seems to be the perfect small town. Things go even better when Joanna makes a new friend Bobbie Markowe. Unlike a lot of the other women in town, Bobbie is down-to-earth, dresses casually, and isn’t preoccupied with the appearance of her home. It’s not long before both women begin to notice some odd things going on in town. For one thing, most of the other women in town seem obsessed with looking perfect (even in the grocery store) and keeping their homes immaculate. At first Bobbie and Joanna joke about it, but it’s not long before Bobbie becomes suspicious that something’s going on. And when Bobbie starts to behave the same way, Joanna becomes convinced that there’s something sinister beneath Stepford’s surface. Walter isn’t much help in the matter. When Joanna tells him about her concerns, he says,
 

‘’If Bobbie’s taking an interest in her appearance, it’s about time. It wouldn’t hurt you to look in a mirror once in a while.’…
‘Do you want me to change,’ she asked him.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’d just like you to put on a little lipstick once in a while.’’
 

Among other things, this novel offers an interesting social commentary.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little tells the story of Pasadena schoolteacher Lora King. When her brother Bill falls in love with Alice Steele, Lora tries to get along with her for Bill’s sake. But right from the beginning, it’s difficult. At first, she thinks it’s just because she and Bill are close, and she’s not happy admitting to herself she doesn’t want to ‘share’ him with someone else. Besides, Alice is beautiful, with exactly the right clothes, while Lora isn’t exactly a fashion plate. But little by little, she begins to have real suspicions about Alice. Nonetheless, when Bill and Alice marry, Lora continues to try to get along with her new sister-in-law. Alice quickly becomes a social leader in their circle. She’s the one with the perfect hair, makeup, parties and hors d’oeuvres. But the more Lora finds out about Alice, the more she sees that Alice has a dark side. At the same time as she’s repelled by that, Lora is also drawn to it. Then, there’s a murder. When it looks as though Alice might be implicated, Lora has to decide what she’ll do.

Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman owns a Melbourne bakery of which she’s justly proud. She depends on her employees, and she cares about them. For instance, her two shop assistants, Kylie Manners and Gossamer ‘Goss’ Judge are both determined to have television careers. To that end, they eat as little as they can, to make sure they stay thin. And they’re very concerned about what they wear and how they look. In Devil’s Food, their obsession goes a little too far, when they’re both sickened by diet tea that turns out to have been poisoned. At one point, Chapman and her friend Meroe are trying to help the two girls after they’ve been poisoned. Chapman’s trying to find anything among their possessions that might have been responsible. As she’s looking through their things, she finds that,
 

‘Those girls had more makeup than a theatre company…Foundations enough to build a small Greek temple…and eye pencils to supply Ancient Egypt for a dynasty.’
 

In the end, Chapman and Meroe do discover both the source of the poison and the person responsible for it. And in the process, we learn just how much effort Kylie and Goss go to in order to look ‘just right.’

In case you think this pressure applies just to women, that’s actually not true. Men, too, are often pressured. We see that, for instance, in Bev Robitai’s Body on the Stage. Dennis Dempster has more or less let himself go since his divorce. His sister insists that he get his life back together and, mostly because of her, he signs up for auditions at Auckland’s Regent’s Theatre for the upcoming show Ladies’ Night. He gets a job with the stage crew and preparations begin. The dancers in the show get ready for their performances with workouts and training at a local gym called Intensity. When Dennis solves a printer problem for the gym’s owner Cathy, she invites him to join the dancers’ workouts as a way to get into shape. He reluctantly agrees, and starts the regimen. Then, Cathy’s assistant Vincenzo Barino disappears, and is later found dead. It turns out, too, that there is more than one possible motive, as Vincenzo was involved in some lucrative ‘side businesses,’ with some dubious people. What’s more, he had a reputation as a ladies’ man who wasn’t particularly fussy about the marital status of his partners. As the story unfolds, we learn about the dangerous side of trying for ‘the perfect body,’ and the balance needed to stay in shape in a healthy, but not obsessive, way.

There is an undeniable pressure to look and dress a certain way, and it’s not helped by media and other popular images. In real life, it can have disastrous consequences. It can in crime fiction as well.

 

 
 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Rainbow High.

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Filed under Agatha Christie, Bev Robitai, Harper Lee, Ira Levin, Kerry Greenwood, Megan Abbott